Damon Albarn’s new musical Wonder.land is a loose modern retelling of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass; in this play, we find Aly, a young, mixed-race Londoner who is struggling to deal with her parents’ divorce and the bullies at her new school. She retreats into an online game called Wonder.land, where she creates an avatar who is nothing like her (or at least, her image of herself): brave, curious, weird, thin, blonde and white. As well as following Aly’s search for a sense of self (and, ultimately, love for that self), the play also considers issues of legality and morality in the online world – relevant themes we also saw earlier this year in the West End production of The Nether.
The acting throughout is phenomenal: Lois Chimimba is outstanding as Aly, a prickly but vulnerable teenager to whom we can all relate, and Enyi Okoronkwo provides excellent support as her friend Luke. Hal Fowler’s MC is captivating, funny and fabulous; but the show is stolen by Anna Francolini’s tremendously villainous Ms. Manxome, whose timing is as sharp as her dress sense. Great performances also come from Carly Bawden as Alice, and Golda Rosheuvel as the dishevelled and struggling mother of Aly.
Rae Smith’s set for the production is fantastic; minimal props, such as a bed or school desks, are used to evoke a sense of place, while the moving set pieces recall the disorder of Wonder.land itself, where everything is mutable and constantly shifting. The screen at the back of the stage is sometimes used to give depth to the scene currently taking place, and at other times to project the contents of Aly’s (or someone else’s) phone screen so it is visible to the audience; this is especially effective when the events in Wonder.land are being played out onstage, and we are distracted from the interactions between the players by the notification that they have attained a new level, constantly reminding us of the interplay between virtual and real worlds.
Albarn’s music is an interesting and enjoyable mix of contemporary sounds, using electric guitar and base as well as technological themes, and more traditional musical styles; although occasionally the lyrics leave something to be desired – they are often fun, but not particularly clever. Many of the scenes work incredibly well in musical form, especially the fight between Aly and her mother, which manages to be hilarious and completely relatable at the same time. Although to some Alice purists the play may not seem to satisfactorily address the plot of Carroll’s stories, it echoes a lot of his preoccupations but repackages them for a new audience in a burst of slime and glitter.